Nicholas May

Tone Studies

By Nicki Roman

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The Saxophone Music of David Maslanka

Nicholas May, saxophone

Ellen Sommer, piano


David Maslanka (1943-2017) was a composer we lost all too soon. He is an individual that impacted countless saxophonists on a musical and spiritual level. Whether it be his works for saxophone and piano, his concerto, or his significant contributions to our quartet repertoire, Maslanka’s music is always a treat to perform and listen to. His music has, and always will be, a part of my musical journey. 


Sonata for alto saxophone and piano


This iconic sonata is recognizable by almost any concert saxophonist and you absolutely MUST listen to the piece in full in order to hear the entire story unfold. Nicholas May has an effortlessly even tone throughout the entire range of the horn that captures the characteristic sound of Maslanka’s music. What I find difficult about Maslanka’s music is the amount of attention that needs to be made towards intonation. May’s intonation is consistent from top to bottom. Both performers were able to capture the more “comical” moments in the third movement with conviction. I found myself smiling quite a bit! In contrast to this, the intense and “to the fore” moments were done with poise. The ability for both the saxophonist and pianist to shifts characters as a duo was very effective. Nicholas May finds ways to showcase this with his use of vibrato. His varying speeds of vibrato are important to point out. The music builds with intensity as May is able to spin his vibrato to the peak of any phrase. The ensemble playing was highly effective and presented in a way that really made the listener feel that the work is a true duo for saxophone and piano. The 3rdmovement was of particular interest to me. The interplay between both parts was effortless, and there was a sense of authority in who was meant to take charge. The duo does a fantastic job in loosing control and coming back into a more reserved character.


The Sonata was commissioned by the North American Saxophone alliance for the 1989 convention and is one of the longest sonatas we have in the repertoire. The entire work is in a standard 3-movement sonata form. Camille Olin’s dissertation “THE SONATA FOR ALTO SAXOPHONE AND PIANO (1988) BY DAVID MASLANKA: AN ANALYTIC AND PERFORMANCE GUIDE” (2006) has served as an invaluable resource for students and professionals working on the piece. 


Tone Studies


Similar to May and Sommer’s elegance portrayed in the sonata, the atmosphere created by this duo sets up the work very nicely. Like much of Maslanka’s music, his melodies are recognizable, and he draws from chorales composed by J.S Bach. Compared to Maslanka’s Sonata, many of these movements are far more lyrical in nature. For this reason, the interplay between the two performers is heard quite differently. What I find more intriguing here is May’s ability to blend his sound into the melodic lines of the piano. Whether this be in the sparse writing during the second movement, or the more uplifting Watch the Night With Memovement,both performers do a fantastic job growing as an ensemble without overbalancing each other in the final movement. The final movement showcases a large build that eventually falls dynamically in both parts. This can be challenging to do as a duo without one over shinning the other. You can tell they have spent time finding a cohesive balance that works beautifully. I found this movement to be highly engaging for that reason.


Tone Studies is a new edition to our repertoire, written for Jordan Lulloff and premiered at the 2012 World Saxophone Congress XVI in St. Andrews, Scotland. Maslanka’s aim in this work is to give the performer “a large number of choices about quality of sound, choices that will evolve with deepening study.  The key to successful performance for both pianist and saxophonist is patience – patience with tempi, patience with fermatas, patient and careful listening into tones produced by each instrument and by the two together.” (David Maslanka). The work lends itself to be a fantastic study for an undergraduate student striving to further develop their core sound.


This is the type of album I would recommend to a wide variety of audiences. One of the great aspects of Maslanka’s music is that it appeals to audiences at large. His music can captivate an entire room of people. From the engineer, to the high school math teacher, and to the seven-year-old who is hearing the saxophone for the first time. Nick May and Ellen Sommer provide a tasteful and highly virtuosic rendition of these fantastic works in our repertoire.


Nicholas Mayis an Adjunct Instructor at Kansas Wesleyan University in Salina, Kansas and Mid Plains Community College in McCook, Nebraska where he teaches applied clarinet and saxophone lessons. He received his M.M. from the University of Kansas, and his B.M. from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has studied privately with clarinetist, Dr. Robert Walzel, saxophonists Harvey Pittel and Matt Otto, and Rebecca Fischer, former violinist of the Chiara String Quartet. Ellen Sommercurrently serves as a lecturer in piano at the University of Kansas School of Music.  She performs regularly with faculty, visiting artists, and students. From 1994-2003 Sommer taught at Missouri Western State University, both as piano and voice faculty.